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This post will cover an epidemic addiction, which is killing more people each year than any other drug on the planet. It is a substance that you yourself are taking. But before we get on to that, we need to change our perceptions of addiction, because without understanding what you're battling, how could you hope to fight it?
When we talk about addiction we think about heroin needles and rehab. Maybe smoking and potentially alcohol might also cross your mind. What you would never contemplate is the idea that YOU might be an addict, without even knowing. And yet almost all of us are. Chances are, you are and addict. This is an idea that I have been contemplating recently, since I was awakened to the frighteningly obvious addiction that I was blindly allowing to ruin my life.
Coffee wakes us up in the morning right? It certainly did for me. In fact, at one point I couldn't leave the bed without my girlfriend coaxing me out with a mug. Truth is I loved coffee, as dark and strong as my ulterior personality, and drinking it was not only a fantastic taste but also gave an amazing kick and a legitimate reason to stop working at least once an hour. I may have let things get a little out of hand though, which I realised when I peaked at around 10 cups of the black stuff each day. At that point I was also suffering from what I thought was chronic fatigue syndrome and some kind of digestive illness, causing crippling stomach pains. I was convinced that I had bipolar too, displayed in horrendous mood swings at irrationally minute issues. As I would learn later, all of these were symptoms of over consumption of caffeine. To an objective viewer such as yourself it may be plainly obvious that 2 litres of coffee each day isn't good for you, but the thought never crossed my mind.
Why was I ignorant to the evident? Because I was addicted, and that is what addiction does. It blinds you to the evident reality. Now, I'm pretty lucky, because although being addicted to coffee had some consequences for my work, which suffered due to my tiredness, and my relationships (Read: mood swings), nothing irreversible or severe happened as a result. It could have been much worse had it been another drug. Sure, you're thinking "at least it wasn't cocaine". You better stop laughing, because I can virtually guarantee that you, and I, are addicted to a much more lethal substance, but more on that later.
My point here is not that caffeine is a nasty drug, for the drug isn't relevant right now. The issue here is that I had become addicted to a commonplace substance without even noticing. My consumption of coffee became fairly extreme, although at the time the immediate after effects felt normal, good even. But a lot of people wake up drowsy each morning and reach for the kettle and Kenko (or brand of your choice). If this sounds familiar, then you are depending on caffeine to get you going in the morning. That is an addiction, and the longer you continue this habit the more dependent you will become. For many, they are happy in this state, and there is no immediate reason not to be.
However there are a couple of caveats. Firstly, coffee does not make you feel more awake once you become dependent. Rather, it lowers your base level (how tired you feel when you wake up) so that you need coffee simply to return to the level of energy you used to have upon waking. This is complete dependency, because by consuming the drug you have taken away your bodies own ability to wake up in its normal energised state, and it instead requires a drug to do the job for it. Depending on coffee is therefore making you feel MORE tired! Secondly, a single coffee in the morning is usually the start and rarely the end. You might not end up on 10-a-day but that isn't to say there won't be a progression. When your body realises that coffee is required to maintain its energetic state, you will start to want another to lift you above that state i.e. to feel the benefits that your one coffee used to give you. This progression is typical in addicts, and must be monitored in order to be avoided.
This should give you a better idea of what an 'addict' is. Anyone who consumes an addictive substance. So who is an addict? Everybody is. You are. Not necessarily with coffee but with something. So what though, right? Your morning coffee(s) isn't/aren't going to kill you. Even so, it concerns me how easily we can slip into addictive behaviours without knowing it is even possible. How our lives can be changed, even controlled, by everyday products.
When I, quite by chance, stopped drinking coffee, I discovered just what walls my addictive habit had built. For the following two weeks I was a weak, (barely) walking tellytubby, with the foggy-headedness of a hangover. A two week hangover. It was tough to focus on anything and I felt drained constantly, pretty similar to the fatigue I had felt throughout the day with coffee. The stomach cramps disappeared immediately though, a sure sign that quitting was the right thing to do. Over time the tiredness I had been experiencing, which had in truth been a symptom of cravings, was replaced by true sleepiness in the morning, naturally fading away.
Within a month though, these feelings slowly disappeared, leaving me feeling much better, with a clearer mind than I was able to achieve with coffee. Amazing that I hadn't realised what I was missing. The mood swings stopped too, which was best for everybody. Since giving up I have learned to enjoy the occasional coffee for its taste, but have managed to hold off dependency, using some simple strategies. Stopping was incredibly difficult, far more than I could have imagined. After all, when you don't know that you're addicted, why would stopping seem hard. How many smokers do you know who smoke often but 'aren't addicted' ? Get them to stop and you'll see them suffer. The worst kind of addiction is the invisible kind, because there is no way of confronting it, stopping it. I thought I had a chronic illness, because that seemed more obvious to my addicted brain than that coffee was harmful.
What does this matter to you?
You are almost certainly an addict. In fact, your addiction is far more harmful than caffeine. You are addicted to sugar, you are built not to notice, and in the twenty-first century your addiction could kill you.
Roughly 75000 years ago (Ancient Historians be gentle) sugar was sparse yet useful. Virtually our only source of sugar was honey, which humans at the time might come across at most twice a year. It was a brilliant source of quick-burn energy to get us going. Fast forward those 75000 years, sugar is everywhere. In the obvious places, like chocolate, and in far less obvious places too. A very quick run down on the biology:
- Fat doesn't make you fat: fat is good for us, an important constituent of each cell in our body, an amazing energy source and vital for joints. It is no coincidence that the war on fat and the introduction of 'fat free foods' correlates exactly with rising obesity, heart disease and joint operations.
- Over consuming sugar makes you fat: diabetes is the inability of your body to create or respond to insulin, which is a messenger telling your body to store Glucose. Diabetes type-2 is caused by sugar overconsumption and is dangerous to health. When you over consume sugar, your body stores it as fat in cells.
For a much more helpful explanation of sugar and its effects on the body read this article from Nerd Fitness.
All we need to understand is that sugar intake can be attributed as the cause of almost every major disease in the Western world, including heart disease and some cancers, all of which have ameliorated risks when obese.
The addiction for sugar we experience was helpful when sugar was sparse, but now that it is commonplace, it is killing us! We are addicted and we have been for a while. Thing is, you probably didn't even know. But try taking it out of your diet for a week (which is complex in itself given that it is put into almost everything) and I guarantee feelings of hunger, weakness and light-headedness. That's a come down my friend. It's the cold turkey wagon.
It is quite likely that you also have an addiction to alcohol. Alcoholism is normal in fact, as the likely response to consumption of an addictive thing. I'm not saying that you drink it at breakfast, but most people, myself included, struggle to "just have one".
You don't feel out of control but you aren't in control.
Social media is addictive too - it's built that way. Not as detrimental to your health but perhaps more so to your career. You scroll a bit, you want to scroll down a bit more. Ooh, just one more post. Before you know it 90 minutes, 30 likes and an untold number of memes have passed by.
You are not in control.
Being addicted to sugar is incredibly dangerous for your health, and yet we are neither aware nor taught about it, or its consequences. By allowing this to continue, food corporations are able to exploit our addictions, filling products with sugar to hook us and our money, sacrificing our health in the process.
So what do we do about it?
The first step is knowing. Once you are aware of your addictions it becomes possible to deal with it. It is possible that you suffer from other addictions too which you can root out by taking note of all of the things you do regularly. Sugar is a good place to start though. Next you need to take back control. We all have 'to do' lists and running around completing those is hard work. We deserve that cake right? Next to your to do list, have a NOT TO DO list, where you can include these addictions to be avoided. List all of the habits that normally feed your addiction, including sugar in your tea, and that odd biscuit from the pack in your desk. It is just as important NOT to do these things as doing the things you have on your to do list.
Cold turkey isn't always necessary, and this is for you to determine. However, having 'less' is not a good goal, and can be manipulated easily. Set yourself an exact figure, or choose 0 as I do. Moderation is impossible for me, so when I stopped coffee I went down to nothing for 2 months. Once I learned to control it, and live without it, I introduced the occasional one.
When working to beat any addiction, the habit can be just as tough as the addiction itself. In order to defeat the habitual loop of need-sensation-reward you can manipulate it with a substitution. Every time I wanted a coffee, I made a green tea. It wasn't the same hit as caffeine, but it was still a hot drink, a suitable response to the pangs. It is surprising how useful this substitution trick is for providing a different reward to your mind. If you were stopping eating sugar, you might swap sugary snacks for raw carrots: not as enjoyable, but they'll fill you up and distract you, which is good enough.
For coffee specific advice I could offer the following:
- Go cold turkey and live without it for at least one month.
- If you want to drink it again in the future, never drink it first thing in the morning. Ensure that you are fully awake before drinking. I would recommend no earlier than midday.
- Do not have it two days in a row, to make sure that dependancy isn't creeping back.
- Measure the strength of each cup if you make it yourself. I had gotten into the habit of shaking a rough portion from the jar into the mug. I later realised I had been serving myself around 3 teaspoons worth each time without noticing. Always use a spoon so you know for certain.
- Have it only when you are out. I do not buy have any coffee in my house. Otherwise, I could get bored or tempted. I have the occasional coffee, when I am meeting a friend in a café. It is a treat, not a staple.
The Main Concern
The issue with these behaviours is not that sugar will kill you (although it certainly can) but that you don't know what you are doing. We are uneducated about the effects of sugar, while fat is ostracised as the unhealthy macro-nutrient. We consume enormous quantities of sugar because we are hooked to it, without knowing about sugar content, sugar's effects, or that we are addicted to this lethal substance.
We are not in control because we do not have the knowledge or the understanding of addictive substances to take action for ourselves. But we can take back the initiative, avoid sugary food and drink (the majority of the supermarket) and save many lives simply by opening people's eyes before they open their mouths.
You are an addict, and there is no rehab. You need to do it yourself and do it now.